Singing the blues over the rainbow?

TRUE blue Tories battling to win back control of one of Suffolk's most colourful councils look set to win the fight for votes on May 1 – but it may only sniff power for two short weeks.

TRUE blue Tories battling to win back control of one of Suffolk's most colourful councils look set to win the fight for votes on May 1 – but it may only sniff power for two short weeks.

For in St Edmundsbury, where for the past year the borough council has been run by an alliance of political groups – dubbed the "rainbow coalition" – a storm is brewing with a possible takeover plot in the pipeline to once again topple the Conservative group from power.

The Tories won the last local election in 1999, claiming 23 of the borough's 45 seats. Despite several high-profile defections during the course of their administration, thinning the blue line, the group still boasts 21 members – giving them overall political control in the chamber.

But the Conservatives were forced into opposition last year after the reds and yellows of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent groups snatched power during an all-member vote to install a council leader.

And although the Tories look certain to secure enough seats to win overall power again on May 1, the current council leader has warned the blues may struggle to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow coalition's reign.

For a second takeover plot, engineered by the reds of Labour and other minority groups, looks likely at the council's next annual meeting on May 15 – just two weeks after voters go to the polls.

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The chance of Labour winning the election outright were severely limited before the fight for votes even began, as 12 Tory councillors standing in rural wards, traditionally seen as Conservative strongholds, were returned unopposed to their seats.

The development means all 24 of the Labour group's candidates must be returned for the party to snatch power – a prospect leader Ray Nowak admits is unlikely. Instead, he is urging voters to opt for the multi-party alliance.

"It is unlikely we are going to get all our candidates elected, so we may end up reliant upon the independent and smaller groups at the council's annual meeting," said Mr Nowak.

"The coalition cabinet has worked extremely well over the past 12 months, and the question residents need to ask is whether we should carry on with this new style of governance or drift back to an administration that had lost sight of its objectives – other than to do as little as possible.

"The Labour team of candidates offers a possible way forward to engage the community in decisions while making choices about how the people's money can be best invested. We have also shown good governance by working with other parties in this past year.

"The message is we have started something new. We can demonstrate that it works, and it has been qualified as effective."

Indeed, the only way the Conservative group can ensure safety is to win a total of 23 seats. This number would provide the Tories with a large enough majority to guarantee the failure of any possible takeover planned by the rainbow alliance.

And group leader John Griffiths – one of the 12 candidates returned unopposed – has made his feeling on the coalition clear, labelling the existing arrangement "self-interested" and "bizarre," saying: "We will never forget that we are seeking election to serve the people of St Edmundsbury, regardless of their – and our – politics.

"We would give a firm and clear direction to the council, ensuring that St Edmundsbury influences – and benefits from – the inevitable future growth and changes in this area.

"Unlike Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Independents, who have ruled the council through a bizarre and self-interested coalition for the last year, we believe in offering the people of St Edmundsbury a choice, and are both willing and able to serve them with integrity and to the best of our ability – putting people before personalities and politics."

For the suspected Labour coup to succeed, the support of smaller political groups will be needed. Last May, Independent members added a further splash of colour to the rainbow by joining the coalition – with their reward coming in the form of cabinet representation for group leader Mike Ames.

At this election, seven Independent councillors will stand, and have highlighted the main issues in the fight for votes as the long-awaited Cattle Market redevelopment and the equally long-running multiplex cinema saga.

"Having Independent councillors representing people at a district level is very important for transparency," said Mr Ames. "These councillors have a crucial role to play in debate.

"I believe local government should be about putting people before politics and parties, and think the coalition of the past 12 months has been of benefit to St Edmundsbury in general."

And putting people first is the key policy of James Lumley, who is standing in the Bardwell ward for election as a representative of the UK Independence Party.

The only two current Liberal Democrat members on the council – former mayor Brian Bagnall and Southgate ward representative Peter Dulieu – will stand down this year, leaving five candidates to fight for the chance to bring a line of yellow to the possible rainbow.

And David Chappell, standing in the Pakenham ward, said the group is confident of winning all five seats as a result of their pledges on council tax and developing a science park within Bury St Edmunds.

"The major issue for most people is, of course, the council tax," he said. "We are campaigning across the country, and believe it should be abolished and replaced with local income tax based on people's ability to pay.

"We are also very keen on getting the science park developed in Bury. Suffolk suffers from low wages, and we believe this development will bring higher paying jobs to the town."

But after the storm clouds have cleared, and regardless of which colours are returned this May, the rainbow looks set to continue to shine.

Only time will tell if the electorate discover a pot of gold at its end.

n St Edmundsbury's elections will be by an experimental total postal ballot. No traditional polling stations will be open.